Of time and networks

Communities have marked time in different ways. It used to be marked by the bells of a church or the clock on a local factory. At that time, it didn’t matter that the clock told the precise time, but that it was consistent. This meant that different ‘time zones’ existed in areas separated by little distance.

The amount of reference time pieces expanded as mechanical clocks were installed in churches, farm estates and early factories. In the case of factories the change of shift was often punctuated by the blast of a fog horn.

I can remember this being the case even during my early childhood at the nearby Unilever factory. The change of shift signal marked my walk to infant school.

Over the centuries canals sprang up throughout the country as the first mass transport link, facilitating the movement of heavy goods such as coal and iron ore in a more efficient manner. Canals were transformative, but the boats still only moved at the speed of the horse. Railways broke the ‘horse speed’ barrier. This was transformative because it suddenly shone a light on inconsistent time keeping across the country. Railway timetables couldn’t incorporate all the variations in time zones between stations, so it became the arbiter of accurate time.

Over time radio and television played their part, audiences could set their watch by the start of key news programmes, for instance the time pips in the run into BBC Radio 4’s today programme or the Angelus chimes on RTE Radio  1.

The telephone came into play when looking for an exact time (to reset a watch or alarm clock) outside the broadcast schedule.

The popularity of mobile phone networks didn’t have as much of an impact as one would have thought. NITZ (Network Identity and Time Zone) was an optional standard for GSM networks. It has an accuracy in the order of minutes. A competing standard on CDMA 2000 networks used GPS enabled time codes that were far more accurate.

Modern timekeeping for the smartphone toting average person goes back to NTP; one of the earliest protocols in for the early internet that was created some time before 1985.

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Back in 2001 when I installed the earliest version of macOS (then known as OSX 10.0 ‘Cheetah’) the date and time settings made reference to Apple owned NTP servers that were used to calibrate time on the computer. This infrastructure has since provided time to Apple’s other computing devices such as the iPhone and the and the iPad.

We are are now living on the same time. Time synchronisation happens seamlessly. We tend to only realise it when there is a problem.

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Brandon Beck of Riot Games on eSports

Beck is the co-founder of Riot Games (best known for League of Legends) on the rise of eSports and what its future looks like.

Interesting that Riot are trying to give players a better base to build their careers, but how long is their professional life, when do they burn out?

Three takeaways from Cannes and VidCon

I had the chance to read around a lot of the stuff that happened at Cannes and listened to Ogilvy’s webinar on VidCon. Here were the key things that struck me.

There is blind faith amongst brand about the benefits of influencers and social.  I find this particularly interesting because it represents a number of challenges to the status quo:

  • This first struck me when I saw Heather Mitchell on a panel at the In2 Innovation Summit in May. Mitchell works in Unilever’s haircare division where she is director, head of global PR, digital engagement and entertainment marketing. I asked the panel about the impact of zero-based budgeting (ZBB) and the answer was ducked. ZBB requires a particular ROI on activity, something that (even paid for) influence marketing still struggles to do well
  • The default ethos for most brand marketers is Byron Sharp’s How Brands Grow: What Marketers Don’t Know. Most consumer brands are in mature categories, engagement is unimportant; being top of mind (reach and repetition) is what matters
  • Brands were looking to directly engage with influencers at VidCon with trade stands and giveaways at the expo. This was brands like Dove. Again, I’d wonder about the targeting and ROI

Substitute ‘buzz marketing’ for ‘influencer marketing’ and this could be 15 years ago. Don’t get me wrong I had great fun doing things like hijacking Harry Potter book launches when I worked at Yahoo!, but no idea how it really impacted brand or delivered in terms of RoI. Influencer marketing seems to be in a similar place.

Publicis and Marcel. Well it certainly got them noticed. There has been obligatory trolling (some of which was very funny). I tried to make a sombre look at it here: Thinking About Marcel (its about a nine minute read) – TL;DR version – its a huge challenge that Publicis has set itself. One interesting aspect to point out is the differing view point between WPP and Publicis. WPP has spent a lot of time, effort and money into building a complete advertising technology stack including advanced programmatic platforms and analytics.

WPP hoped that this would provide them with an unassailable competitive advantage. The challenge is that the bulk of growth in online spend is going to Facebook and Google – who also happen to have substantive advertising technology stacks.

I can’t help but wonder if this shaping is Publicis’ top line thinking? Scott Galloway posted a very sombre chart about this. If Google and Facebook hit their combined revenue targets this year, it will have a dramatic effect on the number of people employed in the major advertising groups.

1707 - ad industry

To put Galloway’s numbers into context, the projected number of jobs lost in the advertising industry  this year would be roughly the equivalent of every man and woman around the world currently employed at vehicle maker Nissan. And that’s just 2017.

If you paid attention to the Marcel concept film you would have noticed that the client service director is partly displaced when a client uses Marcel to directly reach out to Publicis experts.

If Marcel, just makes information easier to access internally; it could save the equivalent time  equating to almost 1,600 employees (out of Publicis’s current 80,000 around the world).

People equate to billings as these marketing conglomerates are basically body shops in the way they operate. So it will adversely affect the value of the major marketing groups.

If that isn’t grim enough, Galloway doesn’t even bother to take into account the Chinese ecosystems which is digitising at a faster rate than the West. China also has a longer history of platforms and clients being directly connected – cutting out the media agency.

These changes in the advertising eco-system has huge implications about the erosion in brand equity over time. Amazon’s move to surpass other retailers also is about the erosion of brand power. Combine this with the increasing ubiquity of Prime and all brands start to look the same as private labels.

Thankfully the disciples of Byron Sharp still realise that there is power (and lower CPMs) in using television as a mass-advertising medium which is why FMCG product still spend 90% of their budget offline.

The best thing IPG, WPP, Omnicom and Publicis could do right now is spend a lot of money ensuring that every marketing and MBA student have copies of Mr Sharp’s books. If they haven’t been translated into Chinese, that might be an idea as well.

SnapChat is in its difficult ‘second album’ phase. Back when music came on physical media and record labels invested in developing artists as a longer term proposition than a reality TV series there was the ‘second album’ phase. Artists often struggled to bottle the lightning that gave them a successful first album. They usually had the money and resources to throw at it, but it was hard to be a consistent performer.

For example Bruce Springsteen only really became successful in the U.S. with his third album Born To Run – that level of record label support wouldn’t happen now.

On one level SnapChat has matured. It had a big presence at Cannes and its Snap glasses displaced VR technology as the worn product. It has been under assault. Major content providers like the BBC are choosing Instagram’s stories over SnapChat’s offerings. Even Twitter is getting back in the picture. Ogilvy’s team at VidCon talked about how Twitter had been successfully engaging with influencers and offering them support and attractive content monetisation offers.

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Oprah time: True Names by Vernor Vinge

New York Times journalist John Markoff was interviewed by Kara Swisher on the Recode podcast in February and talked about reading science fiction to better understand how technology is likely to affect us.
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It’s actually a great piece of advice. Back in the day, large corporates used to employ authors to write stories based on scenarios as part of their research programmes. Many people have attributed the clamshell mobile phone to the Star Trek TV series and the flip communicator devices.

Markoff outlined his favourite stories.

“Snow Crash” by Neal Stephenson (1992): “The premise is, America only does two things well. One is write software, and the other is deliver pizzas. [laughs] What’s changed?”
“The Shockwave Rider” by John Brunner (1975): Markoff said he built his career on an early understanding that the internet would change everything. He said, “[The Shockwave Rider] argued for that kind of impact on society, that networks transformed everything.”
“True Names” by Vernor Vinge (1981): “The basic premise of that was, you had to basically hide your true name at all costs. It was an insight into the world we’re living in today … We have to figure it out. I think we have to go to pseudonymity or something. You’re gonna participate in this networked existence, you have to be connected to meatspace in some way.”
“Neuromancer” by William Gibson (1984): Markoff is concerned about the growing gap between elders who need care and the number of caregivers in the world. And he thinks efforts to extend life are “realistically possible,” pointing to Gibson’s “300-year-old billionaires in orbit around the Earth.

I had read Snow Crash relatively recently and Neuromancer was revisited last year. I had a vague recollection of The Shockwave Rider and True Names, but hadn’t read them in over 20 years.

Vinge’s True Names is published by Penguin with a collection of essays from a range of technology thinkers including

  • Chip Morningstar and Randy Farmer who founded Habitat one of the first massive online multiplayer games, back when dial up bulletin boards were the bleeding edge. Farmer worked at Yahoo! when I was there and was involved in Yahoo! 360 and still consults on community / social platform issues
  • Bruce Schneier wrote about how security products fail us. Bruce is one of the world’s leading commentators on all things hack and cryptography related
  • Mark Pesce is better known now as an Australian-based computer academic, but two decades ago he invented VRML – a way of representing the internet as a 3D thing and prescient in the light of Oculus Rift and others.
  • Marvin Minsky; was a pioneer in AI and machine learning provided an afterward to the story

That True Names managed to attract essays from these people should be an endorsement in itself.  Re-reading it two decades on, Vinge’s story echoes and riffs on the modern web. Hacking, cyberterrorism, constant government surveillance and the tension between libertarian netizens versus the regulated  real world. The central theme of Mr Slippy; a hacker who is identified by US government officials and co-opted as an unwilling informant and agent provocateur feels reminiscent of LULZSec leader and super grass Sabu. It’s amazing that Vinge wrote this in 1981 – although he envisages the web as being rather like a Second Life / Minecraft metaverse – with NeuroSky style interfaces.

Penguin’s careful curation of essays riffing on the themes of True Names is where the real value is in my opinion. For someone who cares about technology and consumer behaviour. It is worthwhile keeping this book on the shelf and diving in now and again.

More information
Want to understand the future? Read science fiction, John Markoff says. | Recode
Habitat Chronicles – thoughts on gaming, online products and community building by Chip Morningstar and Randy Farmer
Schneier on Security
Mark Pesce’s professional website and his columns for The Register
Vernor Vinge lecture on long-term scenarios for the future via The Wayback Machine

I watched Apple WWDC so you didn’t have to

There was a mix of hardware and software updates. Apple put a lot of focus on  virtual reality, augmented reality and prepping their operating systems for handling larger amounts of data.  There was work done to further optimise video and photo usage on device.

The event offered bad news for online advertisers and a number of consumer electronics manufacturers. Online advertising using retargeting or autoplay video is going to be blocked in Safari. The new HomePod speaker took aim at ‘casual hi-fi’ like Sonos, Bowers & Wilkins and Bose.

Apple is working very hard to try and understand user intent, which is one of the first pieces it needs to put in place to develop the experience of a truly programmable world. What do I mean by a programmable world? A ‘web of no web’ where device intelligence behaves as if it understands user intent like a good valet. It is moving in a stepwise manner towards this.

What was more surprising is how Apple has gone big on VR and AR creation and consumption. Whilst video post-production houses probably have the most to complain about when it comes to Apple’s Pro equipment, they are not name checked. Apple has started to move to address their concerns. The external graphics support in macOS implies that a furture Mac Pro will have the software to match hardware.

More details by platform:

macOS

The name High Sierra implied an OS update that might seem incremental to consumers, but has major technology changes under the hood.

  • Data – Apple File System as default (many features similar to Sun Microsystems’ ZFS). Faster for file swaps and giving a faster computer experience
  • Video – better quality video algorithms with smaller file sizes and integration with
  • Graphics – upgraded Metal API – Apple had been using it on machine learning applications within the OS. Metal 2 has been used to accelerate system level graphics and provides access to app developers. There is OS support for external graphics accelerators. The external graphics developer kit is based on AMD Radeon card.
  • MacOS supports VR through Metal for VR. Steam, Unity and Unreal supporting VR on the Mac. Apple seems to believe that VR and AR content is the desktop publishing of the 21st century, they have gone hard on making the best creators platform that they can
Safari
Focus on being the fastest browser experience, even in comparison to Chrome
  • Autoplay blocking – which will impact advertising network video views
  • Intelligent tracking prevention – positioned to target advertising retargeting and cross-site tracking
Mail
Productivity refinements including a split screen view
Photos
  • Uses machine learning to improve searching and photo recognition and integration with photo-editing

tvOS

  • 50 media partners integrated into TV app
  • Amazon is coming to Apple TV. Interesting move of detente between Apple and Amazon

iOS

iOS 11 – focus on underlying technologies:
  • Machine learning APIs – to help adoption of CoreML on device for third party apps
  • ARKit – to aid AR in apps. Clever work done on scaling and ambient light. This about providing a market for the content which which would be created on the Mac
  • Chinese specific features: including support for QRcodes, SMS spam filtering. Chinese users have a particular set of contexts and these innovations could become popular in the west
  • Interface tweaks in control centre and the lock screen.
Messages
  • Improving discoverability of app stickers and apps – much needed
  • Automatic synchronisation of Messages across devices, delete once, delete across all devices
ApplePay
  • Person-to-person payments as an iMessage app. Obvious competitor would be WeChat in China and PayPal in the west
Siri
  • Improved expressive nature of the voice.
  • Follow-up questions, presumably to improve context
  • Provides translation services
  • Siri integration into a wide range of apps including WeChat and OmniFocus They’ve tried to use on-device learning to try and improve context and being helpful. Siri knowledge is synched across devices. Uses web history to improve Apple News and custom dictionary spellings
Apple Maps
  • Indoor navigation for airports
Photos
  • Better image compression to save space on device. New depth API that can be accessed by 3rd party apps
  • Video autorotates a la Snapchat / Snap glasses
App Store
  • Apps now reviewed in less than 24 hours
  • First app redesign in nine years. Tweaks to improve discoverability and merchandising of apps including in-app sales
 watchOS
  • The biggest feature in watchOS 4 is the Siri-powered face. The Siri-powered watch face provides contextual information on the ‘home screen’. It takes into account past habits, time, location etc. Apple’s language around this was interesting, they described it as an ‘Intelligent proactive assistant’.

More details by hardware

Mac hardware
  • iMac – improved displays, brighter and support for 1 billion colours. Moving to Kaby Lake Intel processors. Up to 64GB of RAM on the iMac and 2TB SSD. Discrete Radeon graphics cards on larger iMacs. – big focus on VR development.
  • MacBook – Kaby Lake processors. Pro machines get updated graphics as well. The MacBook Air gets a processor boost.
  • iMac Pro – single piece machine with workstation specification including 10Gbit Ethernet. Presumably as an interim measure until the Mac Pro arrives next year. How upgradeable would the iMac Pro be, which is a key consideration for workstations
iPad hardware
  • iPad Pro – 20% bigger screen, 120Hz screen refresh rate. Doubling default memory sizes up to 512GB
 
Apple HomePod
Apple is going after Sonos and brown goods companies like Bose, Bowers & Wilkins and Bang & Olufsen. The Siri functionality is a hygiene factor rather than a serious competitor to Amazon Echo. There was a big emphasis on the privacy functionality of Siri in HomePod
Further reading

WWDC 2015: you know the Apple news, but what does it mean?
48 hours with the Apple Watch
Eight trends for the future: web-of-no-web
Eight trends for the future: contextual technology

Quote of the day

I think the future of television is more fragmentation, the bundle has no more elasticity in it.” – Barry Diller.

This explains everything from ManUnited TV to the new channels that Amazon has launched as Prime add-ons in the UK and Germany yesterday. Media has been driving an increasing share of household spend over the past 15 years.

In a time of stagnating economic growth and declining incomes (in real terms) that middle won’t hold. Much of it becomes discretionary spending.

Barry Diller

The foibles of poor ad placement

The display advertising market has moved on from where it was 20 years ago in terms of poor ad placement. Conference speakers and trainers still trot out the same story about knives and suitcase sets advertised next to to the story of a murder. The murderer had apparently stabbed their victim with a knife and put the body in a suitcase for disposal.

poor ad placement

However you still get less extreme examples of unfortunate ad placement like this one from Under Armour.

Every Day Carry (EDC): the digital edition

Every Day Carry (EDC) is a movement that’s sprung out over the past few years. It fetishes the artefacts of everyday life and often features over-engineered products.

It covers a wide range of analogue real world items that people (usually men) bring with them when they leave the house (and it might include a bag). There is a whole other post on why its real world products, but thats for another time.

If the concept of every day carry was brought over to the smartphone what would it look like?

What would be the ten must have apps on your phone beyond the default installed apps?

Mine, in no particular order:

  • Accuweather – pinpoint weather information that’s a step up from BBC weather or the default weather app on the iPhone
  • Buffer – app for social media publishing
  • CamScanner + – a document scanner for your iPhone
  • Citymapper – better for getting around London than Google (or Apple) Maps
  • Newsblur – a subscription based RSS reader by Samuel Clay. It learns what you like over time
  • Pinner – a client for Pinboard.in social bookmarking service
  • TravelWise Ireland – The Irish foreign ministry has an app providing background, safety information and emergency contact details for countries around the world

 

Oprah Time: The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner

I had this book on my list of to read materials as it was a proto-cyberpunk novel, and finally got past my inertia when John Markoff recommended it.

The Shockwave Rider

Brunner was a British science fiction writer who did his best work in the 1960s and early 1970s in this book he reflects on a connected world not too far away from the one that we live in. Despite Brunner’s roots he manages to speak with a confident American voice in his writing; something that I don’t think is a bad thing, but caused friction with his contemporaries.

The main protagonist is a hacker who has used his skills to conjure new identities and ends up starting a revolution through the creation of computer viruses and worms. Brunner is credited with introducing the concept of the modern computer worm.

His work reflects a different society to our own where our identities can be broken (if you have the skill or the money) and a new one forged – a vision 180 degrees away from what governments, advertisers and social networks want. He is on to something with The Ear – a service that audiences can contact and will be listened to in privacy and without judgement. The secular confessional it represents feels like something the world needs as a counterweight to the cognitive dissonance and connectivity-as-social-value of social networks like Facebook and SnapChat.

Richard Edelman is wrong, PR isn’t at a crossroads…

I recommend that readers check out Richard’s PR is at a Crossroads post. Edelman cites changes at PR agencies owned by marketing conglomerates as indicators. He thinks this due to a lack of confidence in the PR industry. There may be some truth in it; 2016 had the lowest annual growth in seven years for Edelman. As for the industry sitting at a crossroads, on the cusp of transformation. It is already being transformed.

Richard Edelman, head of Edelman PR

Public relations has already crossed the Rubicon. The Rubicon crossing happened years ago. Richard noticed the signs back in April 2011:

…as PR continues to expand, encompassing digital, research, media planning and content creation, should we consider rebranding ourselves as communications firms?

At the time the question was prompted from London colleagues. Richard disagreed with the premise.

By 2012 Edelman was in the AdAge Agency A-list in the US. In March 2015, Edelman’s boiler plate changed from:

Edelman is the world’s largest public relations firm…

to

Edelman is a leading global communications marketing firm

Edelman hasn’t been a PR agency for the past 2-5 years. The transformation in the industry has been going on for at least a decade.

Why this has happened is down to six factors:

  • Mature research and academic thinking on effective marketing
  • Technology-driven marketing strategy
  • CMO perspectives shaped by marketing thinking
  • Talent
  • Advertising changes
  • Media landscape changes

 

Mature research and academic thinking on effective marketing

Lets break things down a bit, some bits of PR are about the corporate parts of a company.
Corporate PR covers a large area including:

  • Public affairs
  • Educating investors
  • Shoring up shareholder confidence
  • Internal communications
  • Community affairs

Some corporate and social responsibility actitivities could fall under PR. When we’re talking about who is responsible for organisation moral purpose /meaning. This should come from the CEO down.

Thinking about marketing communications the situation changes a lot. It depends on the sector and the audience that you are communicating to. For consumer marketing; the role that PR plays as part is a subordinated part with the marketing mix. Byron Sharp’s works How Brands Grow (parts 1&2) outline PR’s small, but intricate role with clarity.

For mature consumer brands, engagement (and by extension PR) is less important. Instead the focus would be on efficient reach and frequency of repetition. Being top of mind is more important. The only way for marketing communications-orientated PR teams to grow their billings is service expansion.

Technology-driven marketing strategy

Many business-to-business marketers are using content marketing as a key channel. The content shaped by analysis from marketing automation software.

In marketing automation, strategy is outsourced. Rules embedded in the software platform dictate approach. PR becomes a source of content to feed the machine. The idea is to determine an effective approach. Then optimise to reduce the price of engagement over time. I could write a blog post or two about the problems with this approach, but it is tangental to PR. Content creation is an opportunity for PRs, all be it one with perpetually squeezed margins.

Mature research and academic thinking on effective marketing

In B2C marketing there are large research projects on what works. These include Ehrenberg-Bass Institute and the IPA. In marketing mature consumer brands, we know that reach, frequency and recency matters. Engagement is less important. Public relations then becomes an afterthought at best. Taking an integrated media planning led approach makes sense.

There isn’t a comparable set of research for the PR industry like IPA or Ehrenberg-Bass. Outside the US public relations generally doesn’t have budgets for tools and data. Clients tend to be more action-orientated. Media agencies tend to have the best insights – which aids planning and creative.

The benefits of an integrated advertising-led approach goes back decades. Edelman cites Y&R’s ‘whole egg’ concept. Dentsu’s ‘Cross Switch Marketing’ is similar with roots going back to the 1960s. The PR industry mistook integrated thinking for a primitive view of PR practice. The reality lies somewhere between communications myopia and macro marketing thinking.

From a CMO perspective

  • PR spend is a small part of their budget. It may not even sit in their budget if there is a CCO (chief communications officer) role in the company
  • PR isn’t supported by good quality secondary insights like the IPA or Ehrenberg-Bass
  • Advertising works
  • Advertising agencies foster high trust through visualisation of ideas backed by insights
  • Media relations is low cost, low efficiency but can be high engagement
  • Integrated simplifies the client/ agency dynamic (one ass to kick)
  • Successful integrated agency engagements. Examples include Red Fuse (Colgate), GTB (Ford, Purina) and TBWA Media Arts Lab (Apple)
  • The memory of Enfatico has disappeared

Talent

Edelman has done a better job than most agencies in getting digital and paid media talent. I’ve worked as an in-house marketer. I have worked as a PR person. I’ve also worked in PR agencies doing digital and paid media. I now work as a strategy director in a creative ad agency and the difference is huge.

For most specialists working in a PR agency can be thankless task:

  • PR agency leaders don’t get other disciplines. This is particularly true outside North America
  • I’ve worked with too many agency leaders who think digital is an infographic or a video
  • The briefing process in PR agencies is awful. ‘We’ve got a video, make it viral’ was the worst brief I had
  • Outside North America budgets are very tight
  • You can get better working conditions elsewhere. Tools, people you can learn from, research and ambience. Real conversation at a PR agency: “can you wear a shirt and suit?” “Why?” “We’d just like it” “Can I quadruple my day rate?” “No, why?” “That’s my inconvenience of wearing a suit fee”
  • PR agencies don’t win the awards that matter to us. PR publications wring their hands about the lack of PR wins at the Cannes Lions. This matters for your career

If you have capability built up in the ad agency, creative shop or media agency; use it. Publicis, WPP and Interpublic have deep expertise they can draw on. Publicis talks about this as ‘The Power of One’. It is much easier than recruiting more technical, creative and planning talent into a PR shop.

Advertising changes

As PR has changes so has advertising. There is a far greater understanding of what efficient and effective looks like. While I lament the the decline of advertising’s golden age; multichannel storytelling has improved. Advertising agencies have learned how to combine earned and paid media. Earned media is an incremental revenue increase.

By comparison creative represents a big budget bump for your PR agency. That causes the client to pause and think.

Media landscape changes

As advertising has changed so has the media landscape. The online environment is shaping out with two winners around the world. The pattern of online advertsing spend is clear. Everywhere outside China online advertising is static; only Facebook and Google see increases. In China, is is Tencent due to WeChat that wins. Sina benefits from Weibo. Baidu would have been an obvious winner due to it being a Google analogue. Instead Baidu’s earnings have been static.

This decline in media fortunes adversely affects editorial space. This impacts the efficiency of media relations. By some accounts in the UK there are now 3 PR people for every journalist. PR agencies need to expand beyond media relations. This means trying to get more involved in owned and paid media. The challenge is that advertising agencies are also in that space – extending their storytelling.

More information
PR not communications | 6am blog – yeah I called bullshit on this one. I could afford to be right; Richard had a global family business to defend
Whole Egg Theory Finally Fits The Bill For Y&R Clients: Global Agency Network Of The Year: Team Space System A Winner For Citibank, Others Set To Follow | AdvertisingAge
The Dentsu Way – a great book, right up there with Ogilvy on Advertising in my estimation

The crowdfunded product problem with PopSlate as an unfortunate case study

I’ve go in involved in a few crowdfunded products and some of them have worked out but the majority haven’t. The latest example was the high profile e-ink phone cover PopSlate. PopSlate got over $1 million dollars of funding and was widely covered by the media.

“popSLATE 2 is E-Ink for your iPhone done right.” – Slashgear

“It’s an evolution, not merely refinement.” – Wired

Generally I’ve found that they tend to fail for three (non-criminal) reasons:

  • They underestimated the cost or complexity for batch manufacture of items. They have problems with getting tooling moulds to work and have to go through iterations that burn up cash
  • They get gazzumped; their product is sufficiently easy to make that Chinese manufacturers who go through Indiegogo and Kickstarter for ideas get the product into market faster
  • The engineering is just too hard. This seems to have been the problem for PopSlate who couldn’t innovate and get their product into market as fast as new phones came out

On the face of it its a great idea, bringing the kind of dual screen technology to the iPhone that had been in the Yota phone for a number of years. Huawei had a similar snap-on e-ink back available for the the P9 handset in limited quantities.

popSLATE – The smart second screen on the back of your phone

PopSlate had already launched a mark I version of their product.  With the mark II version of their product PopSlate tried to do too much: they tried to make it a battery case but still ridiculously thin.  The following email was sent out on Saturday morning UK time:

Critical Company Update

This update provides serious and unwelcome news.

Based upon your support, we have spent the last year continuing to develop our vision for “always-on” mobile solutions. Our goal was to solve three fundamental issues with today’s smartphones: we wanted to simplify access to information, increase battery performance, and improve readability. Unfortunately, the significant development hurdles that we have encountered have completely depleted our finances, and we have been unable to raise additional funds in the current market. As a result, popSLATE does not have a viable business path forward.

This marks the end of a 5-year journey for our team, which started with a seed of an idea in 2012 and led to our quitting our jobs to start the company. Although we are very disappointed by the ultimate outcome and its implications for you as our backers, we are proud of our team, who worked tirelessly over the years to commercialize the first plastic ePaper display, globally ship thousands of popSLATE 1 devices as a first-in-category product, and re-imagine & further extend the platform with the second generation product. Despite a strong vision, high hopes, and very hard work, we find ourselves at the end of the journey.

We are out of money at this juncture for two key reasons. First, we have spent heavily into extensive development and preparation for manufacturing;  as you are aware, we hit some critical issues that multiplied the required spend, as described in previous updates.

Most recently, we learned that the fix for the Apple OTA issues would involve more significant redesign. While we initially suspected that the Lightning circuit was the culprit, it turned out that it was a much more fundamental issue.  Namely, our housing material is not compatible with Apple OTA requirements. You may think, “Wait, isn’t it just plastic?  Why would that be a problem?” While the housing is indeed largely plastic, we used a very special custom blend of materials that included glass fibers. The glass fibers were used to solve two issues, both of which were related to making the device super-thin: a) they enabled uniform, non-distortional cooling of the housing mold around our metal stiffener plate (the key component that makes popSLATE 2 thin but very strong) and b) they added tensile strength to the very compact form factor. Unfortunately, we have concluded that these added fibers are attenuating the RF signal and that we would have to spend additional cycles to tune a new blend with required modifications to the tooling. This is an expensive and timely process.

Second, we have been unsuccessful at raising additional financing, despite having vigorously pursued all available avenues since the close of our March Indiegogo campaign (including angels, VCs, Shark Tank and equity crowdfunding, both in the US and abroad). Many in our network of fellow hardware innovators have encountered this difficult new reality. You may have also seen the very public financial struggles of big-name consumer hardware companies—GoPro, Fitbit, Pebble, Nest and others—as highlighted in this recent New York Times article [link]. The most dramatic example of this phenomenon is the recent and sudden shutting down of Pebble, paragon of past crowdfunding success.

There is no way to sugarcoat what this all means:

  • popSLATE has entered into the legal process for dissolution of the company
  • Your popSLATE 2 will not be fulfilled
  • There is no money available for refunds
  • This will be our final update

While this is a very tough moment professionally and emotionally for us, it is obviously extremely disappointing for all of you who had believed in the popSLATE vision. Many of you have been with us since the March campaign, and a smaller set helped found the popSLATE community back in 2012. To you—our family, friends, and other unwavering backers—we are incredibly grateful for your enthusiasm, ideas, and support throughout the years. Just as importantly,  we deeply regret letting you down and not being able to deliver on our promise to you. We truly wish there were a viable path forward for product fulfillment and the broader popSLATE vision, but sadly we have exhausted all available options.

Sincerely yours,
Yashar & Greg
Co-founders, popSLATE

The problem as a consumer you have for much of these gadget is this:

If a product can be easily made in Shenzhen, it will be so you should be able to get it cheaper on lightinthebox or similar sites

If it can’t be turned out in a reasonable time, it has a low likelihood of succeeding

There have been successes of more hobby based products; I have a replica of Roland’s TB-303 synthesiser. It’s the kind of product that can be assembled whilst not relying a China-based supply chain. It also is based on well understood technology and there weren’t issues of with designing for very tight places or Apple’s requirements (in the case of iPhone’s accessories).

What about the poster child of Pebble? Pebble managed to go for longer with a sophisticated product but couldn’t withstand the gravity of declining sales in the wearables sector.

Online ethics in a time of unreasonable behaviour

Much of my social channels are filled with outrage and discussion about what is perceived as unreasonable behaviour.

Tea Party Express at the Minnesota capitol

On one hand we had filter bubbles that allowed audiences to stay isolated, apparently only seeing the content which broadly fitted their world view. For the metropolitan elite, its a steady diet of virtue signalling. For the right it is the Illuminati / New World Order view of an aloof elite.

On the other hand we have voices that break through and are generally viewed as abhorrent by those in my social sphere.  The archetype of the breakthrough voice would be Milo Yiannopoulos. Yiannopoulos is a complex character who has gone from post modern poet who borrowed from pop music and television without attribution, to technology journalist and a libertarian who has become a figurehead of the alt-right. Along the way his wardrobe has changed from a preppy sloan look to a supporting character from the original version of Miami Vice.

Yiannopoulos is very adept at provoking a response from his opponents that rallies his supporters since they think it is evidence of the backlash from an omnipotent elite.

Those on the right would point to figures like Kerry-Anne Mendoza, the editor in chief of The Canary – who has been accused of sensationalist or irresponsible journalism.

The underlying element is that everyone cannot agree on what the problem actually is. Silicon Valley is lining up to filter out the worst excesses of the right; partly because engineer political views and advertiser views are largely aligned.

Generally engineers are degree educated so tend to be libertarian and socially liberal. They will support diversity and often work in multi-national teams. They are acutely aware of the power that their technology has which is why privacy tends to be most politicised amongst the tech-literate. Whilst large corporates would like to do what made the most commercial sense, there is a tension in Silicon Valley between this desire and the ability to hold on to engineers to do the work.

At the other end of the spectrum right wingers are trying to crowd fund a lawsuit against Twitter for for discrimination against conservatives and violations of antitrust regulation. WeSearchr – the crowd-fund platform equate Twitter making a call is equated to discrimination in the American South during the 1960s.

Ken White, attorney at Brown White & Osborn LLP and blogger on First Amendment issues, disagrees.

“WeSearchr’s claims of censorship and discrimination are frivolous,” he told me in an email. “Twitter may be ‘censoring’ in a colloquial way, but it’s a private platform and not governed by the First Amendment. It’s free to kick people off for speech it doesn’t like unless doing so runs afoul of a particular federal or state statute, and WeSearchr hasn’t cited a plausible relevant one.”

“Antitrust law is very complicated and it’s pointless to speculate about what WeSearchr thinks it means by citing it,” he said. “But antitrust law doesn’t say ‘it’s illegal to be a big company that dominates a field.’ Generally it restricts anti-competitive practices, and WeSearchr has never credibly identified any.”

Secondly there is research done by Demos to suggest that those of use with more liberal values have a looser social bubble and are likely to be more aware of inflammatory commentary by those with more populist views.

People with more polarized political affiliations tend to be more inward-facing than people with more moderate political affiliations. In short, the echo chamber effect is more pronounced the further a group is from the centre.

Conversely, those who hold more extreme views will feel emboldened as part of an enclosed community of like mined people.

What should be done?

Demos suggests that the mainstream news as a point at which the different opinions are most likely to meet. However, the very subjective viewpoint of different mainstream news outlets imply that this isn’t likely to happen.

The technology companies have made it clear that they will try and curb the worst excesses of the populist faction online. My sense is that it will fuel their sense of persecution  and provide a point to rally around.

Should anything be done?

More information
Canary in the pit | Private Eye
The Alt-Right Is Trying to Crowdfund Twitter’s Destruction | Motherboard
Talking to ourselves | Demos

Great example of YouTube ad targeting really well done

I had a quick look at the news announced at music technology show NAMM -its CeBIT or CES for DJs and music producers and came across a great review by Magnetic Magazine of Denon’s new DJ product range.
great targeting

But the marketer in me picked up on the great ad placement by Pioneer on the YouTube video which took much of the benefit out of the great PR opportunity that Denon had on their hands.

You would have to be a pretty mean spirited marketing manager to have a minor grumble about the art work being covered up in the bottom right hand corner with ‘Ads by Google’.

Throwback gadget: shareware

Back before the internet became ubiquitous, software was distributed by bulletin boards. It was expensive to dial into a board, so magazines uses to have storage media pre-loaded with applications on the front of them.

For much of the late 1990s and early 2000s my parents used to use MacFormat magazine CDs and floppy disks as coffee coasters. One disk may come with bloatware such as the installation software for AOL, Demon or Claranet. The other disk would be full of free or paid for software.

The paid for software was often written by a single developer. It was a labour of love / cottage industry hybrid. Often the developers wrote the software to deal with a real need that they had, it was then passed on as they thought others would benefit as well.

Open source software the way we understand it now was only in its infancy in terms of public awareness. Packaged software was big money. As recent as 2000, Microsoft Office for the Mac would have cost you £235. Quark Xpress – the Adobe Indesign of its day would have cost in the region of £700+ VAT.

Into the gap sprung two types of software: freeware and shareware.

Freeware was usually provided as is, there was little expectation of application support. It would become orphaned when the developer moved on to other things

ChocoFlop Shareware Style

 

Shareware usually had different mechanisms to allow you to try it, if you could see the benefit then you paid a fee. This unlocked new features, or got rid of nag screens (like the one from image editing app Chocoflop).

In return you also got support if there was any problems with the app. Shareware hasn’t died out, but has become less visible in the world of app stores. One that I have been using on and off for over 20 years is GraphicConvertor by Lemke Software. It handles any kind of arcane graphic file you can throw at it and converts it into something useable.

Kagi Software were one of the first people to provide programmers with a way of handling payments and software activation. Kagi provided an onscreen form to fill out, print, and mail along with their payment. it was pre-internet e-commerce.

I can’t remember exactly what utility programme I first bought for my college PowerBook, but I do remember that I sent the printed form and cheque to a developer in Glasgow. I got a letter back with an activation code and a postcard (I’ve now lost) from the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum.

Later on, Kagi were one of the first online payment processors.

From the late 1990s FTP sites and the likes of download.com began to replace the magazine disk mount covers. Last year Kagi died, making life a little more difficult for the worldwide cottage industry of small software developers. it was inconvenient, but now with PayPal developers have an easy way to process payments and there are various key management options.